A reunion special doesn’t do justice to the importance of the smash Nineties sitcom.
The Friends reunion special not only brought me back to the Nineties, but even farther back, to the Seventies, when I used to watch The Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon and wonder both how the producers could possibly come up with enough filler to kill the time allotted and also whether Jerry would collapse before our eyes. For Jerry Lewis, sub in Matthew Perry, who these days looks rather . . . unwell.
The sitcom’s cast members were invited to get together after HBO Max, bringing home a show produced by its corporate sibling Warner Bros. after streaming for five years on Netflix, decided it needed some splashy original content to get the message out. The six lead actors, who on only one previous occasion had been in the same room together since Friends wrapped in 2004, were paid $2 million to $4 million each, according to the trades, for what appears to be a day or two of extremely light work filming the reunion.
That gathering yielded almost enough winning material to make for a solidly entertaining half-hour, but in this Weimar Era of inflationary entertainment, this was blown up into a 104-minute special fluffed up with celebrity testimonials, interviews with random fans around the world, lame skits (Lady Gaga singing a duet of “Smelly Cat” with Lisa Kudrow), a moronic mini-game show hosted by David Schwimmer, lots of vapid “I love you guys” small talk, clips from past shows whose dialogue gets reread by the actors sitting around a table in 2021, and a fashion show in which runway models from the Nineties strut around in reproductions of some of the silliest costumes from the sitcom. Two of the show’s creators, Marta Kauffman and David Crane, share a few interesting tidbits from the days when they were casting (at which point Jennifer Aniston was committed to a CBS show called Muddling Through that mercifully failed and Perry was signed to a show about baggage handlers of the future called L.A.X. 2194 whose pilot never even aired). But as is typical of high-ranking show people, Crane and Kauffman are evidently petrified of getting on anyone’s bad side, so they don’t share any new gossip or mention the names of any of the people they rejected or tangled with. The one interlude in the reunion that is aimed at firing up the publicity machine is awkward and seems fake: a discussion of a supposed mutual crush between Aniston and Schwimmer in the season’s first year. Apparently the attraction wasn’t strong enough for them to actually kiss, though, except on the show. (Both were dating others.)
Still, it’s sweet to watch the six actors turn up, one by one, at a soundstage on the Warner Bros. lot, where HBO Max had the original sets rebuilt (they were torn down immediately after the final episode because another pilot was coming in to be filmed there the next day). There are a few minutes of mildly amusing bloopers and outtakes such as more footage from the frolicking-around-the-fountain opening credits sequence, and there’s a scene where we’re treated to the sight of Matt LeBlanc dislocating a shoulder while diving onto a couch. Filming had to be stopped, and while LeBlanc was getting his arm put in a sling, the writers hastily devised an alternate storyline in which his man-child character got hurt offscreen, jumping on a bed.
For the most part Friends: The Reunion will serve only to make Friends fans sad. The cast itself seems far less interested in the show than its eager viewers; two of the actors say that for long stretches of its ten-year run they never watched it, Schwimmer says he didn’t watch it for many years after the last episode was filmed until his daughter expressed interest in it, and Perry has said there are entire seasons of the show he no longer remembers due to alcohol abuse.
Because there is no one assigned to ask probing questions, no one mentions that the cast famously formed the world’s smallest union in 2002 to win themselves a uniform wage of $1 million each per week, nor much discusses the actors’ world-famous love affairs (Aniston dated Brad Pitt, Perry Julia Roberts), nor addresses the addiction that plagued Perry. There is very little reflection about the alienation and disruption that comes with sudden fame and lucre, except at the shallowest imaginable level: LeBlanc says he once saw a live helicopter shot of his house on TV, which made him realize he needed to get his roof fixed. No one even mentions that the show was originally developed as “the Courteney Cox project,” she being the only cast member anyone had then heard of.
There is only one genuinely interesting revelation in the entire two-hour extravaganza, and it comes from Perry, by far the most troubled of the sextet. He got the biggest initial boost from the show, and from 1997 to 2000 landed the lead or co-lead role in four major studio pictures, but from at least 1997 he was beset by addictions; he once confessed to drinking a quart of vodka a day. None of this gets mentioned, but he suggests a basis for his self-scourging persona when he says that every time the cast filmed the show he thought he’d die if he didn’t get a laugh. If a joke didn’t go over, he says he’d sweat and have convulsions, right there in front of the studio audience. His discomfort registers even now. The contrast between the hesitant, misshapen, and mole-like Perry of 2021 and his famously lithe and snappy character Chandler Bing is the most heartbreaking element of the special.
Or perhaps the mere fact of time is equally sad. Can it really be 27 years since we first met Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Joey, Monica and Phoebe? Or 17 years since the final episode? I was in roughly the same situation as the Central Perk Six — Schwimmer is my exact contemporary — and though I watched the show only occasionally and never considered it especially interesting, I was one of the 3,000 or so viewers who gathered to watch the finale on Pier 25, overlooking the Hudson River in Manhattan. This was a moment to be shared.
Friends wasn’t the most inventive sitcom, but for Gen X there is no doubt that it was our sitcom, and in its playful geniality it was emblematic of the Nineties. Its continuing popularity among succeeding generations, though, suggests that it has an aspirational appeal: It’s an idealization of the only stage in life when everyone around you is your age and on the same page. Parents have been left behind, and kids have not yet arrived, so young adults are free to focus entirely on themselves — their own jokes, their own goals, their own neuroses and obsessions and romances. Looking around, everyone else is flailing in the same rocky boat, and that does build a spirit of connection. As the last generation to grow up before the Internet, Gen X might be the last one in which those bonds were entirely a matter of shared real life, in the same physical space. The show’s creators famously described its subject as “that time in your life when your friends are your family.” Friends didn’t have to be the best sitcom, because it captured the best time of life.